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Seven tips on fantasy novel worldbuilding

BY Michelle Kenney
6th Mar 2019

Michelle Kenney is the author of the Book of Fire Trilogy, a dystopian YA Lit series published by HarperCollins HQDigital. Michelle took our Writing YA and Children’s Fiction course back in 2015 with the inspirational Catherine Johnson. Here she explains her approach to fantasy worldbuilding …

I should probably confess at the outset that I’m very much a debut author, so the blocks of my world building knowledge have been laid by my course tutor Catherine Johnson, while the rest has emerged from my writing whirlwind of the last two years.

Worldbuilding is a massive, complex subject and there is no one right way - only a right outcome for your story. There are also many different types of world from imaginary, through alternative realities, to contemporary settings. But the reality is, no matter your method, crafting a colourful functioning world is a real challenge for any writer. Ultimately, you need to draw it sufficiently to enable your reader to fully suspend disbelief and engage with the story. It's not for the faint-hearted.

The 'Book of Fire' series imagines a futuristic work after an apocalyptic Great War, and the most important piece of wisdom I’ve learned is that (even after three consecutive novels of 90,000 words) there isn’t space to record all the detail from your world on paper. And here’s the real shocker, no matter how much you wish it, the reader doesn’t need or want to know it all.

Sprinkle the detail lightly and where necessary, let the characters drive the plot and your world will come to life. Above all, make everything count.

I’m a big believer in making mistakes and learning through adventure, however a few golden rules can come in handy as checkpoints. Here are my quick and handy rules to worldbuilding:

1. Who are your characters?

I often imagine worldbuilding as painting a picture, using words instead of colour. So, this initial stage is just a reminder that while the background scenery and backdrop are important for setting, the real story is at the forefront of the picture, in the characters’ words, expressions and actions.

Once you are clear that you are setting up your world for your characters, and not the other way round, ask yourself:

2. What is important and different about your world?

This is the first pencil sketch of your world, capturing the heart of every story: conflict.

  • What sort of location or setting will best highlight this conflict?
  • Who are the protagonists, and what is their relationship?
  • How do they differ from the everyday people we all know?
  • What role can the environment play?

Remember, you don’t need to explicitly create and explain all conflict and aspects of your world in the first couple of chapters. Allow the story to develop naturally, and weave in all your worldbuilding backstory as the action unfolds.

3. What is your worldview?

So, now your conflict has a setting and key protagonists, it’s time to add all important depth and shading. New communities are made up of individuals who are all trying to do their best to survive, and (usually) take care of those closest to them. So, ask yourself the basics:

  • How do people live? Where does the food come? What about cloth and building materials? What wildlife is present?
  • What cultural backgrounds are present? What languages are spoken?
  • What social classes are present, and how do they interact?

This is an opportunity to reflect and experiment! How is the society organised, what is their relationship with the environment and each other?

4. How has your world come into existence?

It’s just as important to consider the past as the present, otherwise your world will feel as though it has just winked into existence at Chapter One. The more credible your timeline is, the more real your world feels. But you have to build rationally, even in a fantasy setting.

  • How long has your world been in existence?
  • How did it get here?
  • What are the big events that have shaped people’s behaviour?

5. What can you see in the detail?

Now we’re into the real fun. Having sketched, shaded and created the world, it’s time to start thinking about your colour palette. After all, it’s always the sum of the little details that makes any world come to life.

So, start thinking about distinctive dress details or unique behaviours. Try analysing other cultures.

  • What makes them different? And think about how you might use variations of what you learn in your world.
  • How do the people relax?
  • How do they express themselves creatively?
  • To what do they aspire?

Don’t forget that all of this needs to continue to support the characters, who are always the focus.

6. Who are your power people?

You’ve sketched, shaded, added background and colour, but every new world system needs powerful people with needs and goals.

  • Who are these people? Are they worthy of their role and influence?
  • What are their strengths and flaws (the more interesting the flaw, the better!)
  • What is their past?
  • What do they think of the big issues and the conflict at the heart of your story?

As your story unfolds, the reactions of these leaders will help to drive the story forward, so stay on top of what they are thinking and doing, even if it is off the page.

7. Bring on the storm!

We’ve sketched, shaded, mixed, painted and ensured our powerful people are showcased in our new world, but still there’s something missing if we’re to hook our reader in and never let them go.

The chaos or storm factor.

So far, we’ve created a colourful, but stable, society. Conflicts are inherently destabilising, so throw in new factors and the result can be a real storm. The nature of the storm is entirely up to you –the most important thing is the reaction of your world and the people in it to the chaos that ensues.

And now you’re set to go. If you follow all of the above you should be halfway close to building a multi-layered, complex and believable world. But remember, the rules only help establish the world, the rest is down to your characters taking their rightful place in the spotlight and driving the plot forward.

Word by word by word.